OPM Breach Notification Frustrates Hacked Feds

Some victims of the massive hack expressed fear their privacy might be violated by fraud-protection services the government has outsourced to private companies.

National Journal
Aliya Sternstein, Nextgov
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Aliya Sternstein, Nextgov
June 22, 2015, 6:31 a.m.

Some vic­tims of the massive hack of fed­er­al per­son­nel re­cords ex­pressed fear their pri­vacy might be vi­ol­ated by fraud-pro­tec­tion ser­vices the gov­ern­ment has out­sourced to private com­pan­ies.

As a res­ult, some say they are not en­rolling for the free pro­gram, and at least one Wash­ing­ton-area sen­at­or, cit­ing poor per­form­ance, said it may be time to ter­min­ate one com­pany’s con­tract.

The Of­fice of Per­son­nel Man­age­ment is pay­ing prime vendor Win­vale $21 mil­lion to of­fer cred­it mon­it­or­ing and oth­er safe­guards to 4.2 mil­lion former and cur­rent em­ploy­ees whose per­son­al in­form­a­tion was po­ten­tially ex­trac­ted by sus­pec­ted Chinese hack­ers.

But to ob­tain the ser­vices, fed­er­al work­ers — some of whose in­ner­most per­son­al secrets were taken in a second, re­lated breach — must hand over ad­di­tion­al con­fid­en­tial in­form­a­tion to an­oth­er com­pany, CSID, which has partnered with Win­vale. Data on people who have un­der­gone back­ground-check in­vest­ig­a­tions for sens­it­ive gov­ern­ment po­s­i­tions was en­snared in a sep­ar­ate hack of an OPM sys­tem.

Pri­vacy Policy?

One former secret-clear­ance hold­er, who asked to re­main an­onym­ous be­cause she still does busi­ness with the gov­ern­ment and be­cause of pri­vacy con­cerns, op­ted to re­gister for the ser­vices. Now, she has mis­giv­ings.

On CSID’s web­site, she was asked a series of se­cur­ity ques­tions to prove she was who she claimed to be, one of which ques­tioned wheth­er she had any stu­dent loans, the wo­man said. She says she answered no. The next day, her cell phone — which she says has nev­er re­ceived tele­market­ing calls — re­ceived three rob­ocalls ad­vising her she qual­i­fies for gov­ern­ment as­sist­ance on a stu­dent loan, said the former em­ploy­ee, who re­tired 18 months ago after 20 years of ser­vice.

“I just thought that is such a strange co­in­cid­ence that I get this call after I have had a se­cur­ity ques­tion in­volving wheth­er or not I’ve had a stu­dent loan,” she said. “And I’m not a con­spir­acy the­or­ist.”

The em­ploy­ee sent a mes­sage to OPM through the of­fi­cial CSID email ad­dress shar­ing de­tails of her ex­per­i­ences au­then­tic­at­ing her iden­tity and then re­ceiv­ing so­li­cit­a­tions re­flect­ing know­ledge of her stu­dent-loan eli­gib­il­ity. The em­ploy­ee shared the email with Nex­t­gov. In re­sponse, she re­ceived an off-top­ic form let­ter in­struct­ing her how to sign up for cred­it mon­it­or­ing, also shared with Nex­t­gov.

OPM of­fi­cials say they have been in con­tact with CSID about a vague com­plaint along these lines and told the com­pany that vic­tims’ data must not be used for oth­er of­fer­ings.

“The is­sue was im­me­di­ately ad­dressed with the com­pany to en­sure a com­mon un­der­stand­ing of the gov­ern­ment’s po­s­i­tion that OPM cus­tom­ers would not be so­li­cited to buy oth­er ser­vices as part of the en­roll­ment pro­cess,” OPM spokes­man Sam Schu­mach said.

However, after the free-sub­scrip­tion peri­od is over, CSID is al­lowed to “ap­proach in­di­vidu­als re­gard­ing their de­sire to ex­tend ser­vices,” he said.

CSID of­fi­cials said the com­pany’s ser­vices would not have triggered any tele­market­ing.

“Any calls from so­li­cit­ors en­rollees re­ceived was simply a co­in­cid­ence,” CSID spokes­man Patrick Hill­mann said. “CSID has nev­er, nor ever will, sell or share any of our sub­scribers in­form­a­tion. That is ex­pli­citly stated in our terms and con­di­tions as well as in our pri­vacy policies.”

OPM’s deal with Win­vale states any data the gov­ern­ment provides the con­tract­or and sub­con­tract­ors like CSID must only be used for the agreed-to ID-theft pro­tec­tion ser­vices.

Straight to the Junk Folder?

Some of the em­ploy­ees re­ceiv­ing no­ti­fic­a­tions say they are not even thor­oughly con­vinced the no­ti­fic­a­tion let­ters are le­git­im­ate gov­ern­ment com­mu­nic­a­tions.

The no­ti­fic­a­tions carry the let­ter­head of CSID, ac­com­pan­ied by a small OPM in­signia, and dir­ect em­ploy­ees to a dot-com com­mer­cial web­site for en­roll­ment. A ma­jor­ity of the alerts are be­ing sent by email from a csid.com ad­dress.

The former clear­ance-hold­er, who re­ceived an emailed no­tice last week, said her re­ac­tion was: “Is this a le­git­im­ate email I re­ceived from OPM? Or was this part of the hack? So now I’ve gone out and answered se­cur­ity ques­tions to who?”

OPM of­fi­cials de­clined to com­ment on wheth­er they could sup­ply CSID with a val­id dot-gov email ad­dress and a val­id dot-gov web­site to as­sist with no­ti­fic­a­tion.

“Frankly, it went in­to my junk mail,” the former em­ploy­ee said. “It just so happened I was clean­ing my junk mail and went, ‘Wait a minute, this is from OPM — or it says so.’”

‘Wait­ing for Oth­ers to be the Guinea Pigs’

Some cur­rent fed­er­al per­son­nel say they will pass on the free op­por­tun­ity or wait un­til they hear pos­it­ive feed­back from col­leagues be­fore re­gis­ter­ing.

By press time, OPM and CSID of­fi­cials were not able to provide es­tim­ates of the num­ber of people no­ti­fied who have en­rolled in the ID-theft pro­tec­tion pro­gram.

An In­tern­al Rev­en­ue Ser­vice staffer, who said she holds a clear­ance and was not au­thor­ized to identi­fy her­self pub­licly, said she was wary of the CSID let­ter, which was pur­portedly sent by OPM Chief In­form­a­tion Of­ficer Donna Sey­mour. Nex­t­gov has re­viewed sim­il­ar no­ti­fic­a­tions.

“Per­haps my fed­er­al ser­vice has made me cyn­ic­al, but even in re­ceipt of a let­ter signed by the Donna K. Sey­mour, CIO of OPM, I wasn’t will­ing to take it at face value, prin­cip­ally be­cause it wasn’t on OPM let­ter­head,” the IRS em­ploy­ee said. She said she is “wait­ing for oth­ers to be the guinea pigs” be­fore sign­ing up for the CSID pro­gram.

Yet an­oth­er gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ee, who did not want her name or agency pub­lished for pri­vacy reas­ons, said she will seek fraud-con­trol help from com­pan­ies she already has re­la­tion­ships with.

“I choose not to use the ID-pro­tec­tion ser­vice be­cause I do not trust yet an­oth­er con­trac­ted ser­vice pro­vider,” she said. “I am will­ing to pay for pro­tec­tion ser­vice through a reput­able com­pany at this point.”

The 30-year fed­er­al em­ploy­ee said she has “nev­er felt this in­sec­ure about my per­son­al in­form­a­tion,” es­pe­cially after learn­ing about the hack of sys­tems hold­ing data on per­son­nel who over the years have filed 127-page forms spelling out deeply per­son­al back­ground his­tor­ies on them­selves and their as­so­ci­ates.

“That means not only my in­form­a­tion, but that of my fam­ily is at risk,” she said. “This is in­ex­cus­able.”

Sen­at­or De­mands An­swers

Law­makers say they are hear­ing sim­il­ar cri­ti­cisms from cit­izens about CSID’s per­form­ance.

On Fri­day, Sen. Mark Warner, a Demo­crat from Vir­gin­ia, home to a high con­cen­tra­tion of cur­rent and former fed­er­al work­ers, raised con­cerns about CSID with OPM Dir­ect­or Kath­er­ine Archu­leta.

“My con­stitu­ents have re­por­ted that the web­site crashes fre­quently,” among oth­er tech­nic­al dif­fi­culties con­tact­ing CSID, he said in a let­ter to Archu­leta. “Many have re­por­ted re­ceiv­ing in­ac­cur­ate or out-of-date in­form­a­tion re­gard­ing their cred­it his­tory, which calls in­to ques­tion CSID’s abil­ity to ap­pro­pri­ately pro­tect them from fraud and ID theft.”

He called for the com­pany’s con­tract to be ter­min­ated if it is un­able to deal with cus­tom­ers’ needs. The award OPM is­sued sug­gests “that pro­tect­ing em­ploy­ees ex­posed by the breach is not the top pri­or­ity for OPM that it should be,” he ad­ded. “We ex­pect that OPM will act quickly to cor­rect any such im­pres­sions.”

Re­spond­ing to Warner’s as­ser­tions, CSID’s Hill­mann said provid­ing ID-mon­it­or­ing and res­tor­a­tion ser­vices to those af­fected “is what we have been fo­cus­ing on throughout this pro­cess and what we must con­tin­ue to fo­cus on in the com­ing days and weeks. It would be in­ap­pro­pri­ate to al­low ourselves to be dis­trac­ted by nor com­ment on polit­ic­al mat­ters.”

Nex­t­gov has asked OPM of­fi­cials for com­ment on Warner’s let­ter.

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